Shopping was a big part of life for many years. I didn’t get it from my parents or my friends. My parents weren’t acquisitive. My dad would buy things for hobbies: sailing gear, climbing gear, cameras and lenses, a sextant, a motorcycle, a table saw, a planer, a router. My friends weren’t shoppers. I can’t think of anyone else who inspired or joined me in this early pursuit.
Looking back, it’s clear that it was a distraction, something to engage in, a substitute for connection. At the time, I just didn’t know what else to do. During the time that my mother and I lived on Church at 26th, I remember going up to 24th street all the time when I had nothing else to do. I would go to the magazine shop, the record store was no longer there, or maybe I’d lost interest. I had started getting interested in clothes. I would go to this funky little neighborhood clothing shop called Oceanfront Walkers. They sold tee shirts dyed in all sorts of colors, sort of a proto–American Apparel. I would spend many tens of minutes there, anxiously deciding whether I needed another soft cotton tee shirt in a slightly different garment-dyed color. These weren’t cool shirts, not band or show souvenirs, not really a unique or interesting style. I was into the colors. And that I could just walk in and buy them. They didn’t say anything — not the shirts, not the people in the shop.
You can’t just go buy a tee shirt of your favorite band. The good ones, the real ones are only sold at shows and concerts. If you just go buy one it’s kind of fake. And I wasn’t really willing to commit to support a band like that anyhow, aside from Van Halen of course — my first and only real concert tee from that era.
I think this habit must have started in those high-school years; I can’t remember doing it earlier. Not true! I used my paper route money to buy soda and candy (the porn mags, we stole all of those). And to play video games at the arcade in the Transbay bus terminal, and at Pier 39. But there wasn’t anything I was buying, collecting. I had slot cars and Tintin books, and I did want more of those, but I didn’t pursue those things. Even when I was at Lowell, in the first two years of high school, I didn’t buy things much. Shoes for skateboarding, drugs, some records, not much.
So it started with the tee shirts from 24th street. I got a motorcycle from my dad and that certainly increased my interest in shiny objects, as did climbing — all the ropes and bits pro had plenty of interest. I had gotten into porn in the same time period; I wonder if the plethora of images somehow encouraged me to to acquire things as well.
As a young person, my parents both worked at ESPRIT. One of the things my dad did was to launch the mail order catalog business there. I remember the first ESPRIT and Patagonia catalogs. They would provide hours of reading whenever a new one arrived. I recall now how these mirrored the layout of encyclopedic books from my childhood. We had one called “The Rules of the Game,” a search for which just turned up another book that we had: “According to Hoyle”, sort of a catalog of card game rules. I had another one about weapons. I loved these big books with their endless categories and images of so many different examples of things, just as I loved the hardware store, the art supply store, the chandlery. And now I can clearly see the similarity to porn, which is essentially a catalog of naked women.
In college I remember the J Crew catalog arriving regularly where I lived at the Cloyne co-op in Berkeley. It was more than a bit incongruous — I would buy things from the catalog, find they didn’t fit, send them back, or wear them, wondering if they fit me. I remember a particular pair of nubuck shoes that attracted my interest for some reason. When the arrived in the mail, they were just some boring shoes, and they didn’t even last well, the leather quickly becoming stained and discolored. The soles were a reddish rubber that wore unevenly. I didn’t love those shoes. I’m sure that I eventually threw them away. This was the same room at Cloyne where I repeatedly played “D.O.A.” from the B side of the Van Halen II at full volume, and where I opened the window in the middle of the night, so I could puke without having to get out of bed.
I continued to fetishize the J Crew, Banana Republic, and Patagonia catalogs in particular. Of course, the course catalog at Cal Berkeley was itself a thing of beauty, as were encyclopedias, dictionaries, and software manuals. Now, we know in general that categorization “is the process in which experiences and concepts are recognized and understood,” and that “categorization based on prototypes is the basis for human development”, so it’s no surprise that I latched on to this experience early on. Until now, I hadn’t quite grasped the connection from categorization to shopping.
Mail order captured the innate human interest in categorization and channeled it into a radically successful new form of consumerism. The mail order catalog business was the prototype for e-commerce. Make a list of everything you make, have for sale, or could buy — and you can choose anything! Set your best writers to describing in hypnotic detail the relationships and differences between every item. I was briefly obsessed with Patagonia “Gi Pants” (pronounced “Ghee”, not “Gee”). The description made them sound positively revolutionary, mainly because of the “gusseted crotch”, designed to allow a “full range of motion”. The copy for the original Gi pants invoked patagonian gauchos, and the pants had a tight calf (also, apparently, derived from riding pants), which reminded me of how we pegged our Ben’s.
See the connections between this line of shirts and these shoes. Compare four or five different shades of blue — all available. At the art store and the hardware store I would often find myself paralyzed with choice, unable to decide which color, which type of pencil, which screwdriver, I needed or wanted. This paralysis was frustrating but also captivating, a state of wonder, a trance of sorts, my mind overwhelmed by the variety of objects, drowning out my own messages and emotions.
In my twenties I would shop at Banana Republic on Grant Street. It’s a shame that that I felt that fit me. And it literally didn’t fit me; I was pudgy and the clothes were oversized, the shirts billowing around me, the pleated pants flowing awkwardly. Once I started working at HotWired and was living in North Beach, I would wander Grant Street and started to become aware of boutiques. I bought an expensive, also oversized brown leather coat from the German leather store there. I started traveling to New York frequently, getting my first taste of rapidly commercializing Soho — not quite a mall yet, but already having shifted focus from art to commerce. I would also often stay with Vasco and Kitty at their apartment in the East Village, and at other hotels around the city, gaining exposure to the endless catalog of goods that is the streetscape of any large city, especially New York City.
In my thirties I began traveling even more, including frequent trips around the U.S. and to Europe for AdMonsters conferences. Shopping became a core part of my plan for visiting a city, and of my experience. I wasn’t good at meeting people, but I knew how to find interesting things, well-arranged and beautiful objects, and such things are often found in interesting places. By interesting I mean literally, fascinating, mesmerizing, the corners of the city most rich in detail and life, the places right on the cusp of change. I came to know a lot of shopkeepers. A few designers, but mostly merchants. I felt a solidarity, with their commercial cares and shelved catalogs of wares. I was reassured by their recognition of me as an appreciator of their craft.
I began to regular certain brands that I thought of as my own. I bought many $189 shirts from a place called Seize sur Vingt. When I first came across this shop it was on a block of Elizabeth street in what was starting to be called Nolita. I would visit this block every time I went to New York. It felt like home, it was part of my itinerary, the fabric of the city that I knew and felt comfortable in. As I did in my teens, I would wander there without aim to look, choose and purchase.
Thinking about those days on Elizabeth street I recall clearly the sense of satisfaction, of victory even that I felt after a successful excursion. Visiting these places — and they were vibrant places full of color and creativity — exercised my judgement, my intuition, my social skills, selection and serendipity. In short, I was in shopping flow. Really, I was, and now I see that is part of why shopping can be so enjoyable, so addictive. It can even be a credible activity, if we remove the waste of needless purchases, and the dopamine spike and crash of the purchases themselves. I was searching for flow on Elizabeth Street, and I found it there too, coming to know the intricate details of what was on offer from emerging, creative designers, navigating my own interests and developing a sense of my own style, feeling out how much something interested me, whether it fit, whether it made sense in my life, whether it would help me be me.
My shirts were still too big, and now I know why. I was carrying too much fat, and my body was loose and blobby. I didn’t want to show the fat, but even moreso I didn’t want the fabric pulled anything like tight against my belly, my tits, my legs. Tight bodies appreciate tight fabrics. The grip of well-fitted clothing is only appreciated by taut muscles. Blousy fabrics mirror swaying flab. I was never even anything like really fat, but my body didn’t feel or look good, and certainly not in tight clothes.
I got good at shopping and I applied this skill to clothing, furniture, and places. Planning all of my AdMonsters conferences was essentially an exercise in shopping for the right city, the right hotel, a great restaurant. The success of the conference validated my choices and showed my mastery of those skills.
My relationships also often involved a lot of shopping, most of all with Caitlin. I bought her things from early on, and perhaps more than anything else, we bought things together. Without quite exactly what we were doing, we would literally go shopping as an activity together, most often on Hayes Street here in San Francisco. We wanted to see what new things were in the shops: Nomads, Dish, Reliquary, Lava 9, Gimme Shoes, Rand + Statler and Modern Appealing Clothing, and I wanted to impress her with my skills, my taste, and my generosity.
After she and I split up, I started to find myself back on Grant Street in North Beach again. I had lived there in the 90’s, Hayes Valley had started to get too busy, and I had tired of most of what I found there. In these years I discovered Engineered Garments and bought custom shirts from Al’s Attire and pants at AB Fits. I came to know Al a bit — we had both gone to Lowell — and I had a crush on young Sarah who worked for him there. Similarly I became passing friends with Howard Gee at AB Fits and his creative sidekick, Samantha.
In those days I had already passed peak shopping, and whenever I bought something I was increasingly conscious of a strong feeling of remorse if I really didn’t need whatever I had purchased, which of course was most of the time. I realized that I was visiting Al and Sarah for company, and I stopped going into the store. I cleaned out my closet (it needs cleaning out again) and now when I feel the impulse to stop in at one of these shops, I usually just feel it and move on. I know that there’s nothing there for me, and that I don’t need any particular, additional thing. I wear one pair of jeans, mostly black tee shirts, and a few other things. I feel silly about all the time I spent shopping, and usually repelled by the idea of going into a shop just to have a look. My brain gets quickly overwhelmed by all the beautiful objects arrayed in creative categories, each so alluring. I recoil at the effort required to determine if each or any of them fit, fit into my life, belong as part of me. None do.
Like sugar, alcohol, advertising, oil, and guns, shopping is obsolete.